I’ve seen The Avengers
twice thrice and enjoyed it both all three times. However, don’t let all of the explosions and CGI-enhanced fight sequences fool you: It’s an extremely well-constructed movie that contains many lessons about how to tell a story. So here’s what The Avengers can teach writers about narrative:
Note: Spoilers ahead!
1. Establish your characters thoroughly
The Avengers had a bit of an advantage here in that it had 5 separate movies to set up the action. However, that doesn’t mean we need to write a Tolkienesque tome to flesh our characters out. During the course of the story, we should understand the motivations of each character, and the different ways in which they meet their goals. In the case of the movie there’s one main goal – defeating Loki and his army – but each person does it in different ways and for different reasons:
- Black Widow states that closing down the Tesseract portal is not a case of having superior weapons – a fact realized by arguably the physically weakest member of the group. She is a spy, not a soldier, which means she is the one best suited to closing the portal instead of fighting Loki’s army.
- Tony Stark manages to get a fresh Iron Man suit by using his casual ease and love of booze to distract Loki. His flippancy and nonchalance – which normally get him into trouble – allow him to rearm himself.
- Agent Coulson shoots Loki right in the chest before he dies. He manages this because even though he’s holding a huge frickin’ gun, he knows that Loki doesn’t consider him a threat.
In all three cases, the characters manage to turn their weaknesses into advantages, and we understand those weaknesses because of who they come from.
2. Make each scene fulfill multiple purposes
When we first see Iron Man, he’s welding an arc reactor to an underwater cable in order to power his newest building. When we first see Black Widow, she’s at the mercy of Russian mobsters, but quickly turns the tables. Later on, it’s revealed that Loki’s plan is to 1) unleash the Hulk so that he can wreak havoc in the helicarrier, and 2) use the arc reactor’s energy to kickstart the Tesseract portal.
And what allows those things to make sense within the context of the story? The two introductory scenes mentioned above, of course. In addition to introducing each character, one informs us that the Stark Tower is a huge energy source, and the other shows us that Black Widow gathers valuable information by having her foes underestimate her.
This is reinforced during the large confrontational conversation that happens in the helicarrier’s lab. Instead of having a string of independent scenes where Character A argues with Character B, we have Characters A, B, C, D, and E arguing with each other simultaneously over several different plot points. Not only does this scene kick off the requisite “break-up” before the team truly bands together, but it’s a masterpiece of showing how various layers of resentment build up within a group of people.
3. Give equal focus to each character at consistent intervals
This lesson also applies to plot threads, and not just to characters. The Avengers masterfully cuts between several different characters so that each one gets screen time at consistent intervals. This is made easier by grouping them within individual scenes and by varying those groupings, but I’m pretty sure that no character is absent from the screen for more than 20 minutes at a time. Interweaving different plots and characters accomplishes several things:
- It builds up tension by showing how the various plot threads interact.
- It helps the audience remember what each character is doing and how different characters relate to each other in space and time.
- It makes sure that the audience doesn’t forget about a character – more importantly, it reassures the audience that we haven’t forgotten about the characters we’re creating.
4. Make each character distinct
The Avengers’ action scenes are well-choreographed and easy to follow. One of the reasons for this was that the main characters were easy to distinguish from one another. Tony Stark didn’t look, act, or sound like Loki, who didn’t look, act, or sound like Captain America, and so forth. Each main character had a distinct physique, costume, and personality so that they were instantly identifiable.
This might seem elementary, but it isn’t. How often have you read a book and had trouble remembering which character was which? Was it because their names started with the same letter? Was it because their physical descriptions were too similar? A recent episode of the “Writing Excuses” podcast addressed this when a plot outline by Mary Robinette Kowal introduced two characters that were nearly identical:
[Howard] Do they have to be two cats? Is that a mythological thing?
[Mary] No, actually this is… Here we go into beginning writer errors. Those are my cats.
[Brandon] Ah. Okay.
[Howard] Mary and Sue.
[Mary] Yeah. Basically. It’s Marlo and Maggie. There becomes… Because I had two cats, later there are plot reasons that there need to be two of them. But no, when I was writing this, it was… It was a way to connect with my niece and nephew.
[Howard] Yeah. There’s nothing wrong with that, when that’s the mission of the story. My editorial brain would say, “Eugh, the cats’ names are too close, they both look like cats…”
[Mary] Yeah. No, I completely agree that they should be different.
If a Hugo-award-winning author agrees with this advice, it’s probably worth following.
5. Give each character a moment to shine
This sounds simple but it isn’t easy to do, especially in a story with such a large cast. However, each character needs at least one moment that forges a strong connection with the audience, whether that’s through humour or profound emotion.
Whedon generally opts for using humour, and The Avengers allows every primary and secondary character (with the possible exception of Maria Hill) to say at least one funny line. Either that, or the line, while not necessarily funny, packs a huge emotional (and sometimes physical) wallop. Just remember this secret, Cap: The Hulk is always angry.
6. Know your audience and anticipate their questions
Comic book fans always ask each other which hero is the best. Who would win in a fight? Which weapon is the strongest? The Avengers doesn’t answer this question because the hero-on-hero fights end in a draw, but Whedon sure has fun trying. He also broaches the question of what would happen if The Unstoppable Force hit The Immovable Object. (Answer: A huge flash of light and a satisfyingly resounding gong noise.)
We wanted to see heroes face off against each other, and Whedon dealt that in spades. We also wanted to see Loki mercilessly and completely smashed. During both showings, the single biggest audience reaction came when The Hulk thrashed Loki against the floor again and again. The laughter was so deafening it reminded me of this anecdote about Annie Hall.
During the climactic battle, Hawkeye stands on a rooftop firing arrows at various targets; during the fight, his quiver rotates the holster containing his remaining arrows so that one is always ready to be drawn. I leaned over to my fiancé and asked him a question: “What happens if he runs out of arrows?”
Sure enough, Hawkeye does. In response, he plucks one from a nearby corpse, places it in his holster quiver, and changes the arrowhead attachment so that he can shoot out a grappling hook to safety.
The point in both cases is that Whedon knew his audience. He knew what they wanted, and what questions they were going to ask. Then, he set about fulfilling those expectations as thoroughly as possible. This is the kind of knowledge that all writers need to develop: An awareness of what questions their audience will ask, what answers they’ll accept, and what actions will satisfy them.
Notice a pattern?
Most of the lessons in this article talk about the importance of character development. Joss Whedon took the time to do several things that make a story appealing no matter what the medium:
- Create characters that are distinct and compelling, with clearly stated goals and weaknesses.
- Give each character the amount of attention they deserve.
- Let each one have a humourous or cathartic moment.
So what about you? How do you think The Avengers succeeded (or failed) as a piece of storytelling?
Update, May 17th: The AV Club has an excellent article out about how The Avengers is so good because it follows the rules of storytelling for TV. Check it out.